I love the smell of spin in the morning.
Turn on the news, rev up the internet, and there it is—false leads, partial truths, irrelevant facts, muddled narratives, legal misfires, knee-jerk politics, conspiracy theories, and ‘insider info’ hot off the grill from a government spokesperson intent on staying employed or from an ‘informed and trusted source’ with, wouldn’t you just know it, an agenda of his or her own.
Listen. It’s time for the media and Congress, to get the story (the whole thing) right. We need more focus on the criminality that may attend Fast and Furious and less discussion about the outrageous, but not illegal, aspects of the operation. More news and less noise. Last Monday morning, Fox News ran a cover story— “ATF ‘Fast and Furious’ Claim SHOT FULL OF HOLES” (The caps belong to Fox). The visuals were pretty exciting, but the revelations in the article, hardly breaking news, were SHOT FULL OF SPIN.
Fox reporter William LaJeunesse (US Government Bought and Sold Weapons) tells us, first, that it was ‘taxpayer money’ (1.25 million—ok, sounds right) that paid for the military-grade weapons ATF sent across the US-Mexico border as part of Fast and Furious.
Where else would that money have come from? Do we think ATF agents in Phoenix passed the hat? It came from the ATF ‘buy find.’ True, the feds have, in some cases, funded investigations with money garnered from the bad guys, but in the case of Fast and Furious, as we know, the US was giving, not getting.
The notion that any US law enforcement agency might have obtained authorization for an operational plan premised on the idea that we could merely throw guns into Mexico—to support the Sinaloa Cartel or any other DTO—and then trace those guns is nonsense.
If the Sinaloa Cartel had needed guns, here’s how it would have worked: someone close to the top of the drug game in Mexico, let’s say Joachim Guzman Loera’s ‘CFO,’ calls whatever US enforcement agency seems a likely supplier (our agent would be a high-level investigator, working in an undercover capacity, who had ‘earned’ the trust of top cartel figures) with a coded shopping list. That’s right. A list. Bad guys don’t generally say “Just send us whatever you have sitting on the shelves…AK-47s, Barrett .50 cals, how about some RPGs? You decide.”
The proposal? Cash for guns.
The cartel contact tells his US enforcement contact to send a man to, say, LA. When our guy gets there, he’s told he should call a cartel contact—cell number provided—and text in a code. This same cartel contact then calls the US agent back, gives him instructions re a meeting place and transfer logistics, shows up at the designated location, opens up the trunk of his vehicle and pulls out a big bag of money.
US law enforcement, after obtaining exemptions from the Arms Export Control Act (ITAR), then uses that cash to buy the weapons, and arrange (as part of a legitimate sting operation) for the transfer of the guns into Mexico.
That’s how it’s done in a by-the-book sting. That’s not how it worked in Fast and Furious. But back to the question: is the fact that taxpayers paid for the guns ATF sent into Mexico headline news?
The Fox News reporter goes on to tells us that ‘this disclosure (re the use of taxpayer money) “could undermine” the claim that Fast and Furious was merely a ‘botched operation’ where agents ‘simply lost track of weapons as they were transferred from one illegal buyer to another….Instead it heightens the culpability of the federal government…”
Am I missing something?
How does the ‘disclosure’ that taxpayer money was used to buy the weapons ATF let walk across the US-Mexico border ‘undermine the defense that Fast and Furious was simply a ‘botched operation’?
I agree with LaJeunesse, who, by the way, has a longstanding and solid rep, about Fast and Furious being something other than a sting gone wrong, (and have said so in my last three blogs) but please, Bill, connect the dots here for me …
The reason Fast and Furious cannot claim the ‘preferred’ status of a ‘botched op,’ with its regrettable, but not criminal outcome, is this: no provisions were in place at any point or at any time to trace, track or interdict the weapons before they could be used to kill innocent people (not an option under US law) on both sides of the SW border.
And then, of course, there’s also the question nobody seems willing to ask: did ATF violate the Arms Export Control Act (ITAR)—the same oversight that resulted in the indictment of 14 high-level administration players linked to Iran-Contra?
Fast and Furious is not under scrutiny because the US taxpayer footed the bill for the guns purchased from US gun dealers–an ‘insult-to-injury’ addendum, yes, but nothing compared to the criminal violations the architects of this operation may face.
Not the story
LaJeunesse also reports that ATF agents encouraged gun dealers (FFLs) along the SW border to sell weapons, singly and in bundles, to straw buyers gun dealers suspected were fronting for criminals—even when those firearms dealers objected. Old news.
All of this is in the Grassley-Issa Report on Fast and Furious prepared for the House Oversight Committee—in the public domain for months.
Fox News tells us as well that this was not a ‘buy-bust’ or legitimate ‘sting’ operation.
Haven’t we already covered this territory?
Yes, ATF agents were specifically advised by superiors that interdiction of these weapons, at any point in the process, was not an option. ATF knew it would not see these weapons again until Mexican or US authorities retrieved them at crime scenes and sent then ‘back home to ATF’ for identification. ATF did, in fact, enter the serial numbers of the weapons they encouraged dealers to sell into the ATF database before they let these lethal weapons walk into Mexico.
We know this. We’ve said it here in this blog. Read the Grassley-Issa report. Or even better, brush off those Intro to Logic skills and ask yourself how a plan purportedly designed to track or trace the movement of lethal weapons might have done so sans tracking/tracing/GPS devices or ongoing human surveillance.
Forget the sizzle, Bill, and move on to the steak.
The real deal
Here are some better questions for Fox News—and for its colleagues in the Mainstream Media (MSM). Why were field agents running the op told by their supervisors NOT to interdict? Why were they ordered by their supervisors to let the guns walk?
Because those were the orders given to their supervisors by their bosses. And the buck stops…where?
ATF, a malleable, ambitious agency ISO glory and an enhanced budget, was, as they say in the homicide division, the means. Operation Gunrunner, a run-of-the-mill op ideally suited to parent darker offspring, was the opportunity. All we need now is motive.
Who stood to benefit, politically or practically, from a ‘secret’ plan to supply Mexican gangs with military-grade weapons that could be identified, incontrovertibly, once returned to ATF by Mexican authorities, as short ‘time-to-crime’ weapons purchased from US gun shops by illegal buyers? No mention of ATF involvement.
Were field agents in Phoenix making money via the sale of these weapons? Don’t think so.
Were their supervisors or the Assistant US Attorneys in Arizona masterminding some self-promoting scheme sans sign-off from the top, boldly breaking the chain of command? Unlikely.
Was Kenneth Melson suddenly overtaken by so much anti-gun fervor that he decided to violate federal law and abandon a career in government (guaranteed work in a shaky economy) for irresistible ideological passions? Sure.
Media muddles, Congress carps
Who’s ready to follow this winding stair all the way to the top? Fox News, The Washington Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times? Forbes just came out yesterday with a headline reading “Fast and Furious Just Might be Obama’s Watergate.” Wow. Where have they been?
NRA’s Wayne LaPierre sent the “W” word out into mediaspace last week as well, hoping he had a scoop and convinced, it seems, that he was letting loose with a big nasty one. Wake up, Wayne, that train’s already left the station.
And what’s holding up the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee? Maybe they’re having a hard time getting that elephant out of the Hearing Room….
Ok, ok. Maybe I’m being too hard on these folks—because never has so simple (and so BIG) a story been so deliberately muddled, complicated, recast, and revised.
And, of course, there’s a reason for this.
Moving targets are harder to hit. And the stakes—for everyone involved in and affected by Fast and Furious—are high. There are going to be losers.
Disinformation (from the Russian dezinformatsiya) translates into a toolbox of disparate strategies, all designed to manipulate public opinion via half-truths (the limited hangout), diversions, confusion/conflation, deceit, and the appeal to political biases already at work in the hearts and minds of people who might otherwise be mistaken for rational citizens.
With Fast and Furious, we see it all.
The limited hangout (an admission to having played a lesser or partial role in a scandal in the hope that what looks like a quick and sincere confession of a relatively ‘minor crime’ will preclude further investigation and take the transgressor off the hook): the admission by President Obama that ‘serious mistakes may have been made,’ and the characterization of the operation by DOJ/ATF as a ‘botched operation’ as opposed to a criminal enterprise. The pledge to conduct a rigorous ‘internal investigation’ by OIG/DOJ.
Diversions (‘disambiguation’ or the ‘red herring strategy’): look to reports highlighting the involvement of other agencies, i.e., the FBI, ICE, DHS, CIA. Any of these entities might have jumped on the bandwagon at any given point, but the fact is that while ICE officially exercises jurisdiction over covert cross-border tracking operations, ATF and the Office of the Attorney General clearly appropriated authority (and accountability) for Fast and Furious. As far as the legality of this ATF operation is concerned, the role of other players (with the exception of the US Department of State) isn’t relevant—their possible involvement, in other words, doesn’t ameliorate or diminish possible criminality on the part of ATF/DOJ.
If Fast and Furious was a legitimate enforcement operation, one or more of the top three officials at the Department of Justice requested and obtained exemptions from the Arms Export Control Act (ITAR) by the State Department. No requests from DOJ and/or no exemptions from State means Eric Holder may be reprising the role of Oliver North in this administration’s re-enactment of Iran-Contra. A former federal agent suggests that if the Attorney General feels the North role may be too demanding, he might do well to remember the John Mitchell part has yet to be cast.
Confusion/conflation: (Cluttering/littering a story with speculation about larger umbrella scenarios, or links which may impact the core story in plausible or seemingly parallel, but not causal, ways) i.e., Fast and Furious was part of a larger ‘covert’ CIA operation whereby US arms were smuggled to Sinaloa Cartel to prevent a takeover of the Calderon Administration by Los Zetas. Or a suspect involved in manufacturing grenades for Mexican criminals eluded ATF. Or ATF also walked guns to Chicago gangs and to criminals in Honduras via Operation Castaway.
Fast and Furious plays for the CIA?
This is where it gets good. I especially like the claim, advanced by The Washington Times, about Fast and Furious being part of a CIA operation.
Why? Because it’s a first-class diversion, plenty shiny enough to engage an untold number of glittery-eyed conspiracy theorists. And it transforms a simple tale into the kind of spinetingler we just don’t want to put down. You see, the CIA is the only agency that can, in certain limited circumstances, run a covert op without involving Congress (you’re still supposed to brief the President, but that’s never in the movies, so…) It’s also an agency able to obtain what’s called a ‘pocket exemption’ from State re the Arms Export Control Act (ITAR)—not in connection with an operation like Fast and Furious, a domestic op, but in situations where the agency is part of an effort to supply arms to an insurgency the US supports. Moreover, a federal prosecutor is unlikely to get involved in a case where the CIA is lurking in the background.
The bottom line? A connection with the CIA can give you some wiggle-room, legally, psychologically, politically, and certainly in the court of public opinion.
A fabricated link, nurtured by the press, between the CIA and Fast and Furious, could spin the blame away from DOJ (look at it from their angle) and give the agency the breathing space it needs to deflect the relentless upward probe of the House Oversight Committee—the narrative reads like the Bourne Trilogy, and just the notion that a under-rated little agency like ATF might be running with dogs big enough to ‘save’ Mexico’s Prez from some of the most vicious assassins in the world (and only a skip and a jump away) packs a powerful wallop.
If it’s a lie (OGA, I hear, is less than keen these days to engage south-of-the-border), at least it’s an interesting one, and kudos to the spin doctors who called it into being. I was on the edge of my seat last week, mesmerized by the report in the Washington Times and its subliminal warning: don’t get involved in things you don’t understand.
The ATF-CIA connection laid out in the WT, of course, was the contribution of a cartel higher-up named Vicente Zambada Niebla, (aka ‘El Vincentillo’), extradited to the US in 2010 on drug trafficking charges and now in US custody awaiting trial. Does this sound like a reliable witness? Does it matter? Apparently not.
Lying, the bottom rung on the ladder of disinformation, is a Don’t Blink kind of business. You need brass.
“El Vincentillo’s” very expensive legal team has it: they continue to advise their high-profile client to ‘come clean’ about the US-Sinaloa ‘partnership,’ and according to the drug kingpin (behind bars in Chi-Town), it’s a very special friendship, so special, in fact, that, allegedly, the US government was only too happy to look the other way when, on one memorable occasion, the Sinaloa Cartel flew a 747 packed to the brim with cocaine into American airspace. And this, according to the Washington Times, is straight from the mouths of ‘CIA insiders,’ former employees.
Well then, what more is there to say?
Maybe this: creating, or fueling ever-widening conspiracy theories is uber-spin. A related tactic involves ‘planting’ one team’s player within the ranks of the opposing team, for the purpose of gaining the trust of that larger constituency, playing on its passions and loyalties, and then sowing confusion, doubt and false information within its ranks. The ‘plant’ could be a journalist, a blogger, or a ‘source’ driven by self-interest or a personal vendetta to ‘share’ or ‘corroborate’ little-known information of interest to the host organization. In war, we call these folks ‘double-agents.’ In spy-talk, the term is ‘counter-intelligence.’ In politics, the phrase is ‘dirty tricks.’
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing at any specific blog, website, or news outlet. I’m not questioning the motives of any reporter’s sources or the credibility of a specific article. I’m only sending out a message of my own: caveat emptor.
‘El Vincentillo’s’ defense lawyers, highly paid and out to win, understands that a successful legal defense, like military propaganda, like the political ploy, is all about spin. And theirs is the best that money can buy. Good stuff.
The US Government and the Sinaloa Cartel
But let’s get back to a bone (extracted from the Washington Times article) I think still needs picking: the claim about the Sinaloa Cartel needing the 2000 weapons ATF sent into Mexico via Fast and Furious.
Mexico is awash in guns: Calderon’s government is the number one purchaser of US arms through our own State Department’s Direct Commercial Sales program (DCS), a subject, certainly, for another blog.
Mexico spends roughly twice as much (416m) through this program as Brazil (209m), the next largest customer on the list, and a country, what? Three times as big as Mexico? No matter: given the negligible degrees of separation between Mexico’s military, its federal police force, and other powerful players throughout the country, weapons tend to travel freely through different sectors of the economy. No stovepiping, no bottlenecks here.
It’s also (still) well-known that Mexican gangs can get all the ordnance they want from Venezuela. Da, that’s right: Russia continues to support Chavez in the construction and maintenance of at least two factories currently churning out AK-47s and the ammunition the weapon’s users need.
Another blow to the ‘US is sending guns to Sinaloa to prevent the overthrow of the current US-friendly administration’ argument: Joaquin Guzman Loera. “El Chapo,” as Guzman is called, is reportedly the 11th richest man in Mexico. Still, the drug lord scores a relatively low ranking on Forbes Magazine’s 2011 Global List of Billionaires, (Mexico’s Telecom tycoon Carlos Slim Helu heads the list as the richest man in the world), but I suspect the magazine significantly underestimates El Chapo’s wealth (listed at 1.0 bn). The truth is that Guzman ‘owns’ the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel, say enforcement insiders, owns Mexico.
El Chapo certainly doesn’t need ATF’s measly 2K contribution of AK-47s and .50 cal sniper rifles to fend off Los Zetas—as violent as they are, the fact is the breakaway assassination squad now controls only a small piece of the pie with a much smaller piece of Mexico’s criminal GDP. The Mexican military is pounding Los Zetas, to good effect. Guzman runs a juggernaut operation, and his very flush associates have the resources to buy an army and twice the weapons that army needs. El Chapo supports PAN, Mexico’s ruling National Action Party, and Calderon.
The CIA used Fast and Furious to shore up Sinaloa and prevent a political coup by Los Zetas? Please.
There are other sidebar articles generated by Fast and Furious, of course–less-thorny reports about ATF’s failure to nab grenade-man or possible ‘companion’ gun walking operations benefiting gangs in the Windy City or mobsters in Honduras. And these make for good reading. But more details about who did what at the lowest levels–the operational architecture of these undertakings–still do not make Fast and Furious anything other than exactly what it appears to be—an under-the-table plan to supply the Administration with strong public support for more stringent gun regs and Mexico with the evidence it seeks to support Calderon’s claim re US weapons fueling Mexico’s drug violence. The simplest answer is usually the correct one. Let’s not forget …
In this case, it comes with a double edge. Because the same simple plan that supported the needs of our trading partner to the south also played to a critical part of the administration’s base here at home: the folks pushing for more stringent gun regulation. A straightforward case of political win-win.
The challenge now, for the media, and certainly for Congress, is to address the real questions, to clarify the dangers inherent in Fast and Furious—especially the threat to the rule of law—and to step up to the possible consequences of a genuine, no-holds-barred investigation into a US government operation that triggered the provision of lethal weapons to criminal actors in Mexico. Weapons used to murder US citizens.
We know how Fast and Furious worked. Now it’s time to ask ‘who’ and ‘why.’ If Fast and Furious operated in violation of US law, which laws, exactly, did DOJ/ATF break? The Arms Export Control Act? The Hobbs Act? Is there perjury at work here? Where’s the crime?
Everyone has a dog in this fight. The press, the government, the White House, Congress, the House Oversight Committee. Republicans. Democrats. US gun dealers. The pro-gun lobby. The anti-gun contingent. US banks with big Mexican accounts. US corporations riding high with NAFTA. The government of Mexico. Mexico’s cartels. Everyone has ‘boundaries,’ not the kind Dr. Phil says we need to protect our psyches—the kind we use to protect our own interests. We want Fast and Furious to mean what what our bank accounts, our careers, or our ideologies need it to mean.
So let’s not pretend the MSM is going, at some point, to offer the public the red meat it craves. Forget about ‘discomfiting the comfortable.’ Fox News has fed us subprime in the hope we’re hungry enough and sufficiently ill-formed to mistake it for NY Strip. Send it back.
Issa’s Committee inches along as well, postponing the appointment of a Special Prosecutor for reasons just vague enough to sound important. One article I recently read mistakenly cites what the author says is a Committee concern that a special counsel would be chosen by DOJ—not true…the special counsel usually comes out of the private sector.
So, what’s the real problem? Loss of control over the outcome of the investigation? Political blowback, perhaps, in an election year–charges of racism? Maybe dangerous revelations about the part our Nafta-partner could have played in the ATF debacle? Mexico, aka ‘Golden Goose,’ enjoys bipartisan support in Washington.
Wait–if Congress needs a rationale to sell a real investigation to its corporate sponsors (ok, maybe, with a ‘surgical strike’ against the present administration, but not with a dig that might rattle our trade deal with el jefe), well, how about this?
What was it that the ATF supervisor in the Phoenix office told worried field agents when they queried him about the advisability of letting lethal weapons disappear without a trace? If you want to make an omelette, you gotta’ break some eggs. HOOAH!
My take? Find an upright, do-right US prosecutor (a Spanish-speaker) willing to leave a comfortable berth in the private sector to take a job he’s smart enough to know may end his career, and let that dog hunt.
Mexico, engaging perhaps in some heady spin of its own (the best defense is a good offense), is turning up the rhetorical heat and threatening to extradite ATF agents involved in Fast and Furious (more on this later). Yes, the Mexican government has opened two, count ‘em, two criminal investigations into Fast and Furious.
Who’d have thought they’d have the time, fighting off all those impending coups?
Government agencies across DC are also on high-alert: organizations that fear they may be connected in even the most remote way to ATF’s gun walking operation have their people working overtime to distract, delay and deceive anyone who manages to get a live voice on the press office phone.
And then (remember the link between spin and political passions?), there are the sincere, unwitting accomplices to the kinds of disinformation campaigns that depend on true believers: Americans who refuse to see the investigation into Fast and Furious as anything but a political witch hunt.
Here’s the problem with any kind of hard, to-hell-and-back investigation into Fast and Furious: no matter who you are, if you choose to do it right–and pay full price for this ticket–the ride is going to take you places you really don’t want to go.
What is it they say about ‘inconvenient truths’?
How about ‘freedom isn’t free.’ Or easy.
Try spinning that for a while. ..